Rosenblum: A law is passed, but her work continues

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2014 - 8:19 PM

Sheryl Hill and her son, Tyler, who died at 16 on a trip to Japan.

Photo: Provided by Sheryl Hill,

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Not much rattles Sheryl Hill, so it’s hard to imagine the powerhouse from Mound shaking as her son, Alec, grabbed her arm and raised it high in the air.

Yes, Alec’s mother did have a question for the president of the United States.

Hill laughed as she recounted leaning nervously into a microphone at Minnehaha Park to ask the first question at the open-air town hall meeting June 26. Was the president aware of the egregious lack of oversight, transparency and sanctions for study-abroad programs to which we send our beloved children in droves?

“We investigate what happens here,” she remembered saying. “We don’t investigate what goes on abroad.”

“I’m going to look into it,” President Obama said. It’s a good bet Hill will make sure he does.

It’s been a long road from self-described awkward teen with a stutter to confident founder of ClearCause Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit that educates young people about how to have a blast, but stay safe, overseas.

Hill has found her voice as too many parents have, through tragedy. Alec’s older brother, Tyler, died in 2007 on a People to People student ambassador trip to Japan. He was 16.

So it’s nice to see her face light up as she talks about even bigger news than a tête-à-tête with the president.

On Aug. 1, Minnesota will become a model for the nation when the Protect Our Students Abroad Act takes effect. The law, the first of its kind in the United States, requires colleges and universities with study-abroad programs to report the number of deaths, accidents and illnesses that occur on their watch. It’s hard to believe, but, until now, they’ve not been required to do so in this $20 billion industry.

The first report will be published by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education on Nov. 15, 2015.

The bill was carried by Sen. Terri Bonoff and Rep. Yvonne Selcer, both DFLers from Minnetonka, with support from Rep. Gene Pewloski, DFL-Winona, and Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

“I never got any resistance,” Bonoff said, “except for the feasibility of how to do it.” Selcer agreed. “When you tell [legislators] these stories, there’s no pushback.”

Many heartbreaking stories are recounted on the ClearCause website (www.clearcausefoundation.org). Our smart, altruistic future leaders, killed by drowning, falls or inadequate medical care, and nobody connecting the dots until Hill and other grieving parents did.

In 2007, Hill’s son, Tyler, who had diabetes, joined his group to hike Mount Fuji. He became dehydrated and desperately ill, but arrived at the hospital too late.

While Hill often hears that “most” students return home safely, she’s no fan of the word.

“I want to take ‘most’ out of the equation,” she said, noting the two recent deaths of American students in Brazil, one due to meningitis, the other to drowning. “They all should come back safe.”

She doesn’t particularly like the word “force,” either, which Sen. Bonoff used to describe her. A friend reassured her that the word fit. “You’re a force,” she told Hill, “like ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Hill, 58, was born in San Antonio, one of four children of a single, migrant-worker mother, who hand-stitched their clothes from flour sacks. Although Frances Beatrice completed only third grade, “she loved watching her children learn,” Hill said. “She was an incredible motivator.”

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